Translation

Nagasaki by Éric Faye

Before the novel even begins, the reader is notified that it is “based on a story which appeared in several Japanese newspapers…in May 2008.”¹ This, of course, makes the words which lie beneath the cover even more titillating.

Meteorologist Shimura Kobo, a fifty-six year old life-long bachelor living in Nagasaki, Japan, begins to realize small changes in the house he lives in by himself: small portions of food are going missing, the level of juice in the container is going down between the time he leaves for work in the morning till when he returns in the evening. Like the meticulous scientist he is, Shimura records all of his observations down in a notebook. However, his rational mind tries to make sense of these strange occurrences that can’t possibly be happening.

Hadn’t the bottle of water been slightly closer to the sink earlier on? A matter of fifteen or twenty centimetres, it seemed to me. No sooner had I convinced myself of this than I changed my mind again. You’re making things up, trying to rationalise your unconscious thoughts. For that matter, are you really sure those yogurts disappeared after all?

Even though Shimura is so precise, even going so far as to measure his juice levels with a particular ruler, he can’t help by shake the thought that his brain is just fooling him. Sprinkled throughout are Shimura’s not completely realized regrets of not having a wife and family. In his first person narration, he posits several times the idea that if he had a wife, he would… There is also the occasional mention of his sister and brother-in-law who have not visited in some time, often writing letters informing him that their unable to come to Nagasaki for a visit.

Because Shimura spends his days analyzing weather patterns and utilizing technological instruments, it is of no surprise that he sets up camera equipment in his house to monitor his home while he is away at work. While watching from his office desk, he swears to see a shadow at first and then, perhaps, the visage of a woman. This uncanny moment when he is surveilling his own home, with only glimpses of a possible intruder, are unnerving.

Faye’s prose rendered in English translation by Emily Boyce is direct and simple. The sparse diction only adds to the heighten sense of insecurity the reader feels while piecing together Shimura’s rationalization and what might actually be happening.

Beyond the surveillance, there is another bit of story being told and that is Shimura’s briefly aforementioned longing for a wife. This is often manifested in sentiments of loneliness with glances of memories of young women from earlier life moments painted with an unconscious longing. Shimura is also shown watching television where news reports detailing the advancement of robotics upset him; the idea that in the near-future that humanoid machines will take over places where humans once dominated is disturbing to him.

For a man who uses technology so profoundly in his career and then ultimately in his own home, the idea of these robots taking over where humans should surely remain is uncomfortable. While watching one such broadcast, he imagines himself in old age, alone, with one these automatons. As he dies, it will “place a hand on [his] shoulder and gently whisper [his] name; it would pass this same hand over [his] eyes and mouth, dial the emergency services, and set the funeral arrangements in motion.” All of this, of course, are the familiar actions done by family, but have instead been replaced in Shimura’s lonely mind by a robot.

Nagasaki won the 2010 Académie Française novel award and like the imagined automaton, the book whispers in the reader’s ear even after the final page is read. As the events become clearer as the story goes on, there is still a mystery that lies within the emotions of the characters. This visceral feeling, perhaps, might be what led to the novel’s distinction in France.

At the beginning, I must admit, there were a few stumbling blocks. The text felt a little bit like it was a translation with a few clunky sentences and French idioms that were, perhaps, presented a little wobbly. However, these were few and once the text took off, the sentences and images were portrayed with language that swam in the haunted and curious corners of Shimura’s thoughts. A particular favorite was when Shimura, who had been having restless sleep since he realized things were not right in his home, finally begins to dream,

The unconscious was bursting through. The past seeped out through hidden fault lines and names came back to me with white-hot intensity. Hizuru, Mariko, or Fumiko, forgotten goddesses reappearing with a mocking laugh to say, ‘We’re still here. You won’t get rid of us that easily.’ By the time I awoke they had returned to their hiding places, leaving behind them, as they always did, a thin sheen of anxiety.

Like Shimura’s dream, anxiety and unconscious desires are what make this book creep into the reader’s mind, depositing its tale of the uncanny and upending the notion of home as being the one comfortable place we, as humans, expect to rely on.

Nagasaki will be released in English by Gallic Books on April 14. It will be available as both a paperback and e-book for UK readers and it will also be available as an e-book for US readers on that day with a January 2015 paperback American release.

**The [International] Reading List.

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Further Information…
  1. The inspiration sounded extremely familiar, but I beat temptation to look up the origin story until after I finished reading the entire novel. I think you should, too.
  2. There is a 2011 Publishing Perspectives article about Gallic Books that is entirely informative and worth a read.
  3. The London-based publisher, Gallic Books, is a new one for me and I am ever so delighted about their publishing scheme. They are fairly new and are already doing a wonderful job of bringing foreign literature to an English reading public. They focus on French literature working with their own in-house translators and a slew of talented freelancers. In 2011, they had a mentoring program for up-and-coming translators, which awarded a contract to a new translation and if they weren’t busy enough, they also run Belgravia Books, an independent book shop in London that not only sells Gallic Books’ titles, but other works-in-translation. Bravo to everyone at Gallic Book and can’t wait for more of their titles! (take a look at their catalogue for their varying selection).

Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll

In a brief glimpse she saw him catch fire, first his shirt, then his hair, then all of him. He went up in a blaze and stood before her, on fire, without turning a hair…

Where to even begin with this book. It is a complicated novel that deals with death, destruction, and our human-strive to piece together memories and make sense of the past. I was utterly taken with it and cursed the moments of the day when I was busy working and couldn’t get my hands on it.

Before I Burn is a novel told in different points in time. It begins during the summer of 1978 in Norway: a rural area is being tormented by an unknown arsonist and Johanna Vatneli rises just after midnight to find that her home is the next victim. Hers was the eighth fire and the reader soon realizes that the opening prose is actually being told by Gaute, the first-person narrator. Gaute was a newborn in the area when his neighbors’ properties were being torched. Most of the structures were barns and other uninhabited buildings, but as the fires progress, the arsonist becomes more brazen and targets homes with people still inside.

The novel blends together Gaute’s desire to piece together the history of that summer and the impact the events had on his neighbors with his own background leading up to the present day.

Ever since early childhood I have been told the story of the fires. At the beginning it was my parents who told me, but it wasn’t until I grew up and heard it from others that I realised that in fact it was all true…It has pursued me for thirty years although I have never known exactly what happened or indeed what it was all about.

Taking his neighbors’ recollections and letters, Gaute composes an elegant retelling that makes the reader forget that he was just a newborn when the fires overwhelmed the area. The identity of the arsonist is not necessarily the pull of the story. Gaute doesn’t string along the mystery of who it was, but instead, makes the real intrigue about the why.

Besides the present day and the summer of 1978, Gaute also includes his law school days when he totally drops out of his career path, while trying to come to terms with the impending death of his own father. This event is what leads him to a life of writing. He balls together different memories of his father’s unpleasant death and weaves them through the pyromaniac’s story.

The real draw of Before I Burn is the prose itself. Don Bartlett really deserves some official honor for his impressive translation from the original Norwegian. The language is spare, but descriptive. In its simplicity, the prose is delivered starkly and vividly. When a line stood out to me, I would re-read it, finding it new with each subsequent glance. It’s almost as if Heivoll through Bartlett has cleared away all of the ash of the burnt buildings and left us with exactly what we need to see.

It was only now she noticed the acrid smell of fire pervading the room. He was wearing a white shirt that was stained down the back and sleeves, there was a long tear over the shoulder where she could see the pale skin beneath, his hair was unkempt, his hands dirty.

After reading this book, I did my usual investigating (re: googling). I found a strange trend among reviewers: they seem to categorize this book as crime fiction. Yes, there is a crime committed (arson), but beyond that it is a far stretch to lump this book into that genre. Like earlier mentioned, the crime itself is not the big draw–the language and fictional Gaute’s personal connection to all of the events are the import here. I can’t help but think: Did these people read the same book that I did?

Before I Burn is now available in English in the US through Graywolf Press. According to their website, the book “was a best seller in Norway. The novel won the Brage Prize and was nominated for the Critics Prize and the Booksellers’ Prize, and it has been sold to more than twenty countries.” Don Bartlett appears to be one of the go-to English language translators for Norwegian works, too.

**The [International] Reading List.

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

Dutch edition; the American cover is entirely too precious

I came to this book not knowing much beyond the fact that Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles was a big hit upon its release in France, which led to its various translations into many languages but not English…until now.

The novel begins with forty-something Joséphine finding out that her husband Antoine has been carrying on with another women and that Joséphine is last to know. She immediately kicks him out and she is left to care for their two daughters and pay off a large outstanding bank debt by herself. Antoine leaves with his mistress to Kenya to run a Chinese-owned crocodile farm. Back in France, we meet various characters (mostly other family members or close friends) that make up the ensemble of this novel. Some of their plots relate directly to Joséphine’s own and others don’t quite tie in at all. They seemed placed there to flesh out a novel that, at moments, is lacking a genuine connection.

The real meat of the book lies with the plan that Joséphine and her more glamorous but bored sister Iris come up with. Joséphine, a scholar and researcher of 12th century European history, agrees to write a novel that her aforementioned bored sister pitched to a publisher at a party. Iris tells the white lie that she’s been writing a book about this time period and regurgitates what Joséphine has gone on about in the past.

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles suffers from unrealistic dialogue and stilted language, but it strengths lie with the relationship between the sisters. The shy and modest Joséphine feels freer to write the book she always wanted to by being Iris’ ghost writer. But when the book becomes incredibly successful and Iris is on television and in magazines promoting it, Joséphine has a mild crisis. Pancol could have explored more on the way Joséphine reacts to her new-found vigor. It is lightly mentioned or implied at times, but never really fleshed out. The crocodile farm is almost irrelevant to the novel beyond the title and her estranged husband’s occasional page presence can be chalked up to the reason to roll Joséphine out of her chrysalis.

At times, Joséphine’s sad sackery is infuriating and her older daughter, Hortense, is the only one that Pancol has written with the most believable dialogue to call her on it. Although not completely flat, almost all of the characters could use with a double dose of character development; the closest is Hortense who is first presented as a stereotypical teenage girl butting heads with her mother, but eventually, she becomes the biggest draw of the novel with quick wit and more smarts than the others.

I wonder if the odd language and syntax are present in the original French or if something is fishy with the translation. Sometimes the language is unnatural. I couldn’t help but mentally yell, No one speaks like that! Not even in a novel. Everything is explained matter-of-factly and my inner student had to refrain from the margin note: show not tell. Other odd parts of language could be due to a strange translation of French idioms. Instead of interpreting, the translators chose to stay too close to the original. For example,

It’s not like I’m the son of Frankenstein. I’m a good-looking guy with lead in his pencil, but she doesn’t even care enough to take a picture of me!

Many of the moments and reactions are predictable. This is a book I would recommend as a beach read, because it might otherwise be unfulfilling. By the end, I was more concerned with Hortense and Iris than Pancol’s lead, Joséphine. They showed more gumption and had more interesting reactions to the other characters that encompassed this world. I thought Pancol presented a gripping conundrum between the sisters and their book, but not enough trust was put in the reader to make sense of everything without being told directly by the author. Although, not surface level, it’s a shame the book didn’t pry a little more into the stories of the characters and the trouble they get themselves into.

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You Disappear by Christian Jungersen

you disappearI find this novel difficult to comment on. On one hand, it has a rather interesting premise, but on the other, the entire time I felt that some sort of emotion was supposed to be elicited from the reader that just never happened for me.

The novel begins with Mia, her husband Frederik, and their teenage son Niklas, on their vacation in Majorca. Frederik is driving erratically, with Mia begging him to stop. An accident ensues and it is revealed that Frederik has a slow-growing brain tumor that’s taken up residence for probably years.

As Mia’s first-person narration flips between the present and memories of times past, it is revealed that Frederik’s behavior and personality were always shifting. Previously, he had affairs with other women, but in the last few years, he has been more attuned to his family. Or is he? Mia’s perspective is wholly unreliable in so many ways. This gives an interesting feel that her perspective is skewed; whether she’s trying to cover up behavior or not is always questioned throughout the novel. Sometimes onion skin layers are delicately unravel and this is where my intrigue is at its highest.

Mia is warned that Frederik’s behavior and personality will change leading up to his neurosurgery, but the doctor also tells her that he had probably been changing some time before all of this. When it is quickly revealed that Frederik had embezzled 12 million krone from the school where he is headmaster, everything falls apart around them with Mia frantically declaring that his haphazard behavior was caused by his diseased brain.

There are fascinating moments in this novel: scattered throughout are articles and documents that we are meant to believe Mia is reading about brain injury, as well as a few personal emails. These are times when we get a second narration of what’s going on and, perhaps, where Mia’s own mind is out on display.

As Frederik recovers from his surgery, Mia still maintains that he is ill, even when others around her (including her son) comment on how good it is to have the old Frederik back. Mia is perplexed how they can say this. As she continues doing her own research, she starts to “diagnosis” everyone around her with a specific brain injury. In doing so, the reader can notice that she now is changing. Where once her husband was the one disappearing, she is the one. She can’t see what is right in front of her eyes.

I’m having trouble pinpointing what it is that is missing for me. Overall, the story was interesting and Jungersen succeeded most when he held Mia tightly wound up and then only letting out small slips of possible truths (a word I shall use lightly). It is a novel of mental trauma, how we change when those around us are changing, what we choose to believe and accept. Perhaps, Mia’s character was not drawn deep enough; however, many memories and dreams are included.

I wonder if You Disappear will swim in my own mind for a while, having my opinions and memories morph. I didn’t feel necessarily gripped by the novel as a whole, but I wonder if I was supposed to be. Maybe the reader is meant to be washed over by the memories and actions, and left to make up their own mind about what was presented before them. The strength in You Disappear is obvious when it comes to where the changes of one character begins and the other ends, and the pleasures are held in little reveals that build to a bigger picture.

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This is Number 9 on The [International] Reading List.

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The two book review: The Angel’s Game & The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Here I present to you two book reviews for the price of one. Back in June, I reviewed Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. In addition to this novel, he wrote two follow-up books–the second being a sort of prequel to the first and the third was a continuation of the first (when it comes to chronology).

courtesy of Wikipedia.With The Angel’s Game, I found myself a little conflicted. The writing was strong and the story was, indeed, compelling. We follow David Martín through most of the 1920s. He is a young man who writes serial stories for one of the newspapers until he is unceremoniously sacked. He signs a long-term contract that requires him to write penny dreadfuls under a pseudonym, a vocation that he dislikes but makes him wealthy. Martín is introduced to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (a place featured in The Shadow of the Wind) where he finds a book titled Lux Aeterna. The book is credited to D.M. but the identity of the author ends there (these initials are shared with the protagonist). This is where everything starts to twist and turn. Martín is approached by a mysterious French publisher who wants him to write a book for him and he will be greatly compensated. After reluctantly agreeing, Martín is thrown into a strange mystery that involves murder, identity, and reality. Like previously mentioned, I have a mixed opinion of this book. It was well-written, the city of 1920s Barcelona and Fermín Romero de Torres’s house were pulsating with a strange life, but I think Zafón might have carved himself a story too complicated to adequately tie together. Racing around, Martín is trying to solve too many mysteries. The novel began to lose its hold toward the final third. I was happy that I had read the book till the end and what, was at first, a really intriguing and gripping story, lost its footing at the end. However, this book still left me curious to read the third and final act of Zafón’s trilogy.

prisoner of heavenThe Prisoner of Heaven concludes the trio and begins in 1957 with the characters from the first book carrying on with their lives. What problems Zafón had with the twists and turns of the previous book, he seems to give himself and the characters too little of a mystery. Of course, it was wonderful to revisit the Barcelona of the other novels and the slew of characters that ooze out of the city’s pores, but the essence of the previous two books vanish with this one. The plot jumps back in time when Fermín Romero de Torres is imprisoned in the 1940s. He meets a fellow prisoner who ends up being David Martín, whose career as a novelist is being taken advantage of by the prison governor. Zafón presents an interesting plot line with the villainous prison governor that is never explored or resolved. It is almost as if he hoped the reader would forget about this completely. This book is a wee bit shorter than the other two and I can’t help but wonder if he just wasn’t able to deliver for his publisher. The Prisoner of Heaven read more like an idea the novelist had for the back story of  Fermín Romero de Torres and for the outcome of the luckless Martín from the previous novel.

These are Numbers 4 & 5 on The [International] Reading List.

Celebrating the 200th Post at Acid Free Pulp

How exciting! Yesterday marked the 200th post on Acid Free Pulp. In celebration (and because it’s Friday and time to goof off), I’ve compiled some bookish bric-a-brac for your perusing. Here are some internet finds that I’m finding amusing–or self-indulgent–today. Enjoy!

  1. If you haven’t had your daily dose (or any dose) of German poetry in English translation, I recently put up a new one on my personal project, Translations of Dead German Poets. Haven’t heard of avant-garde poet Else Lasker-Schüler? Well, now you have!
  2. This morning, I read a Q&A with debut novelist Yangsze Choo about her new book The Ghost Bride, which finds its inspiration in Chinese folklore about a woman who is asked to become the wife of a dead man. I’m excited and you should be, too.
  3. Short stories need to make a comeback and I’m a huge proponent of making the push for commuters (trains, bus types) finding the joy in the medium. Here is a list with links to the stories included of classic stories by Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury and more for your short reading pleasure.
  4. If you didn’t catch JJ Abrams talking about the new book on the Colbert Report last night, you need to watch the clip. Co-written with novelist Doug Dorst, S looks super rad and I just want to touch it. Take a look at the photos on Amazon. It seems like some sort of mash-up of BS Johnson and  Mark Z. Danielewski. Me want!
  5. A new art project in London is designing city book benches inspired by such classics as The Wind in the Willows and 1984. The project hopes to raise enough funds for 50-70 BookBenches. Check the photos here.

‡For an honorable mention (or dishonorable?), I point you to this strange and cringeworthy news article. After reading it, I thought, “What poor book was he using?” Librarians and  book lovers, alike, beware….

Have any Friday fun to share? Please leave your finds in the comments.

The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras

“Yes, it seemed that it was in this realm of her feelings that Lol Stein was different from others.”

ravishing of lol steinI believe everyone should read Marguerite Duras; she is a must. Most people have heard of The Lover, which is a spectacular novella and like The Ravishing of Lol Stein, begs to be read several times, from different angles and at different speeds.

The Ravishing of Lol Stein begins with the life of 19-year-old Lol Stein as she is engaged to Michael Richardson. While attending a summer ball, Michael dances with an older married woman who we then assume he begins an affair with. Their engagement is called off and Lol has a mental breakdown. From then on, the reader is left to suss out what is exactly going on. The narrative resumes about ten years later, when Lol with her husband and children return to the town where she was betrayed by her ex-fiance. The novel is sometimes confusing, which it is meant to be. Translator Richard Seaver is excellent when translating the long meandering sentences or illuminating the direct narration,

[O]f John Bedford it was said that he was capable of loving only women whose hearts had been broken and, what was more serious, that he had a strange penchant for young girls who had been jilted, and driven mad, by someone else.

At times, the reader is on wobbly terrain. The identity of which narrator is speaking at what time can be difficult but Duras is doing this purposefully. Lol Stein is mysterious and deemed unstable by the residents of her hometown, but to Lol, herself, she has completely recovered from her madness, which is a disappointment to her. Spying and watching people from afar are major themes and the reader feels as if they are looking at the story underwater–images appear hazy and just out of fingers’ reach. This all begs for the book to be reread several times with pleasure.

The reliability of Lol and the second narrator (whose identity is not revealed till halfway through) can be challenged at every turn, but by the conclusion of the novel the unreliability can somehow be trusted to be the actual story. Whirling around the lives of Lol and her friends, there is always a sense that there is a history that precedes them and that will go on without them as well as a history that is missing. The reader must consume the entire novel to parse the meaning and what is happening.

The memory itself goes back beyond this memory, back beyond itself. She was perfectly normal once upon a time, before she went mad at Town Beach.

Memory and perception are always strong themes for Marguerite Duras. Her work usually has a simple premise, which then is brilliantly unraveled and raveled once more. What is first perceived as gossip could possibly be the truth and what is labelled as madness is far more complicated (or not). Lol isn’t a useless housewife but is more resourceful than she lets on. Obscuring the view is also common. In The Lover, the protagonist looks through the slatted shades of her lover’s windows and Lol Stein is often found spying through the windows of a hotel.

I find Marguerite Duras very interesting. She was born in French Indochina in 1914 and lived for most of the 20th Century. She was extremely prolific and besides literature, she was also involved in film. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her screenplay, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. If you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it (see the trailer on YouTube–it, of course, reveals nothing of the plot). It deals with memory like much of her work. You can see her bibliography here and the list of Le Monde‘s 100 Books of the Century (#71).

This is Number 8 on The [International] Reading List.

Haute Culture Books, an exciting new translation venture and Q&A with publisher Luis de Miranda

I am very excited about this addition to the publishing world. Haute Culture Books, a new publisher based in Stockholm, Sweden, is making it its mission to provide foreign literary masterpieces to an English reading audience. Most works of international literature are not available in English translation and those that are, are often popular contemporary thrillers (I once had a depressing conversation with a former lit agent and now publisher who told me that he doesn’t see the point in publishing something foreign if we can already get something comparable already in the US).

But, the kicker with Haute Culture Books is that they have something a little different up their sleeve. Their aim is to design high quality editions that any bibliophile would clamor for, while also supplying free ebook editions of the book. The intent is to have beautifully designed luxury editions that would help support the dissemination of the free ebooks, so more people have access to newly translated literary classics. Through their Book Angel Program, people are able to sponsor the production (and receive) the handmade edition as well as the ebook (or for book lovers on a budget, there is also a level for just sponsoring the ebook edition).

They already have one translation available now (the bilingual ebook for Gustave Flaubert’s Felicity: The Tale of the Simple Heart is available to download for free here with information on how to donate) and Estonian writer Anton H. Tammsaare’s novel Truth and Justice available in the future.

As regular readers of Acid Free Pulp know, I am always enthusiastic about literary translation and am thrilled to share with you a Q&A with the publisher of Haute Culture Books, Luis de Miranda. For a complete copy, please download the PDF. All pertinent links are available at the end of the Q&A.

I am looking forward to the current and upcoming books that you are working on. What does the planned future look like for Haute Culture Books?

We will launch with our upcoming publication of Flaubert in December. This special limited edition will sell in high-end boutiques around world, and the results will tell us a lot about the viability of our model. Our limited luxury editions will support the distribution of free e-books for each title. I feel this model addresses the future of publishing as e-books become cheaper and cheaper. Instead of trying to wring out diminishing profits, I prefer to create a model that does not depend on e-book sales and allows us to reach as many readers as possible, particularly younger readers. If we want younger generations to read quality literature, and not just the latest bestsellers, free e-books are the way to go.

As for the printed books, I aim to create unique objects that make the poetry of the texts tangible. As we all spend more time in front of a screen, I believe that the experiential aspect of the printed book will become more important, with readers looking for a higher quality object. I foresee the return of the “gentlemen’s library” (or “gentlewomen’s library”), with fine leather volumes and limited editions—the polar opposite of e-books. Our limited editions will embody my great respect for the ritual of reading and for the craftsmanship of book making.

Through this new model, buyers of our limited print editions will, in effect, become benefactors—or “Book Angels,” as we call them. This model allows individuals to become mini-Medici’s, supporting culture while enjoying a luxurious object. I believe this model will satisfy collectors and book lovers. Right now, we are in an experimental stage. I don’t know if ours will be an economically viable model in the end, but it is definitely a desirable one. Since we are exploring unchartered territory, we have to take things step by step. We are avoiding the established highways over artificial ponds, and attempting to build our own bridge.

There has always been a dearth of international books translated for the English reading audience and, recently, there has been a small movement to change this. What was it that motivated you to begin Haute Culture Books and the Book Angel Project?

Bringing un-translated texts to English readers around the world is one aspect of a wider mission to bring singular, fine, original works to the global corpus. That has always been my goal—to democratize access to culture. I’ve been to the Frankfurt Book Fair many times and met with publishers and agents in New York. I’ve noticed not only that many great European works have not been translated to English, but also that the mainstream US and UK publishers tend to translate mostly genre bestsellers—thrillers for example.

We can’t fight the fact that English is the international language. English is today’s Lingua Franca, the dominant language of the planet and also the language of business. I believe it’s possible to bring to the global language and the international psyche works that aren’t standardized and cliché, but truly represent a unique viewpoint.

Many wonderful independent publishers are translating a variety of contemporary texts, but (as I’m sure they would all tell you) it is not enough to translate and print a book. Today’s distribution systems render most publications invisible to readers. (As an author, I have been translated myself and did not find that the translations greatly increased my readership.) This is why I feel it’s essential for Haute Culture to shake off the shackles of the established systems and freely distribute e-books, in order to reach our greatest readership. Literature has the potential to create a more diverse and interconnected world, but in order to reach that potential we must fight against a profit-driven culture.

What is the translation process like? Does a translator come to you or is one sought out for the specific project?

It depends on the project. We welcome translators who have already completed a text, but we are also willing to find the right translator for a text we want to publish. For our current translation of Yuri Mamleyev’s Shatuny, we are working with one of the best Russian to English translators, Marian Schwartz, who translated Bulgakov and Berberova. 

How does Haute Culture choose the author for a current project?

I tend to choose books that I have read and appreciated in French. It is also important for us to choose authors that are important, even iconic figures in their own nations. Honestly, though, we are too young to have an established method. We are still in the experimental phase of the brand, and we are constantly adapting our strategies in order to come up with the best possible publishing model for our mission.

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Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

spring awakeningSpring Awakening (or The Awakening of Spring as it had been translated into in the past, or the more closely Spring’s Awakening because of the original German title, Frühlings Erwachen) is a particular favorite of mine. Wedekind wrote the play in the late 1800s, but it was not performed until 1905. I have never seen it staged before–although, I know there was some kind of musical adaptation a few years ago–but, as a written text, it works very exquisitely.

“Oh, this feeling of shame!–What good to me is an encyclopedia that won’t answer me concerning the most important question in life?”

These are the words that are declared by Moritz, one of the three main characters of the play. Spring Awakening concerns itself with the fourteen year old school children of the village. There is not much distinguishing the adults (except their funny names: Knochenbruch, Zungenschlag, Fliegentod, tr. broken bone, tonguing or a manner of speaking but literally “tongue hitting,” fly’s death) and they serve to illuminate the lack of sexual education that the children are getting and are often the abusers both physical and emotional.

The play deals with abortion, sex, homosexuality, rape, suicide, and incest, which to say the least, were shameful topics to discuss during the time of the play’s conception. Young Wendla’s older sister has given birth and when her mother goes on about the stork delivering the baby, Wendla insists that her mother tell her the truth. She becomes flustered and refuses to tell her the truth. Instead, her mother concocts the idea that babies only come to women who are married and extremely in love with their husbands. I’m sure, close reader, we all have an idea how that will end. Meanwhile, Wendla’s schoolmates, Moritz and Melchior are also discussing sex. Melchior seems to be the only one of the school children to know anything about the matter and tells Moritz that he will write it all out for him with diagrams included.

The play sometimes carries the subtitle, A Children’s Tragedy. The story unfolds unpleasantly for the three characters because of the undue stress they are put under and the uselessness of the adults. The plot itself is quite intricate for a piece that takes about an hour to read. In his introduction to the 1909 translation, Francis J. Ziegler writes: “‘Frühlings Erwachen’ may not be a pleasant read exactly, but there is no forgetting it after one has perused it; there is an essential strength about it which grips the intellect.”

He is so right in these few words. I could go more into the plot of the play but it would be ill of me to ruin it for those who have never read it. It is boiling with misery, emotions, and brutality. The writing feels like it is part of modernity and a bold piece of art from the later 19th Century. The characters of the children are fleshed out even in just the written word without the help of a staged performance. Each sentences oozes desperation and melancholia. Moritz, Melchior, and Wendla’s frustration is vivid.

You can read Spring Awakening for free at Project Gutenberg (English translation) or Amazon (original German).

This is Number 2 on The [International] Reading List.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

the dinnerI tried not to read too much online about this addictive Dutch novel before reading it. The initial premise was reminiscent of the French play, God of Carnage: two married couples come together for dinner to discuss some mysterious and dreadful incident that involved their sons.

The constraint is the dinner with the novel being divided into sections similar to courses–aperitif, entree, dessert, etc. Koch is excellent at presenting a normal activity (dining) that somehow goes suddenly wrong in so many ways.  The story is told through the first person narration of Paul Lohman who we come to realize is not as he appears or presents himself. Information and certain character developments are held back until the right time. I wouldn’t necessarily call the latter-time reveals “twists” but they were unexpected and made the story much more gripping and compelling. It was almost as if information was being leaked out and then overflowing more as the novel whisked on. The narration becomes less about the sons’ deeds and more about how Paul Lohman’s past can be attributed to the present.

“It might be hard for us to put the events…out of our minds, but in the course of time, they would start to exist outside of us.”

It becomes quite clear halfway through the book that what has already happened even before the incident–in a way–is far more important. Bits of behavior at dinner are dropped in and the order of events that might seem insignificant at first, become key points later on. Koch is really top-notch at crafting this and the translation to English by Sam Garrett seems perfect. I do not know Dutch but I would never in a million years think this was written in any other way than the way the translator presented it. Garrett’s prose makes this feel like a confessional from a reluctant narrator; that we, too, are sitting right there at the dinner table.

I also found pleasure in reading about the experience at the high-end restaurant that the two couples find themselves. Paul Lohman prefers the cafe around the corner that serves his favorite spareribs but finds himself unhappily at this lavish restaurant where every moment of the meal is described to him. In the past year, I’ve written and edit a few restaurant reviews for ridiculous “high-end establishments.” I can’t tell you enough how odd and intrusive it is being briefed and bothered at ever turn during an expensive meal. I prefer my service somewhere between “completely ignored by the unsmiling Ukranian waitress in the corner” to “attentive to my water glass.” Koch is able to perfectly find the correct pitch to poke fun at the silliness of these sorts of restaurants.

The Dinner was a quick and entertaining read. Make sure not to read too much into the plot beforehand, though.

This is Number 6 on The [International] Reading List.

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